When I began my career in international business working for companies that included Goldman Sachs (GS) and Unilever (UN), the directive was always clear: expand, and make more money doing it. When I left the corporate world to co-found Room to Read, a global development organization, I took on the challenge of achieving a goal somewhat less tangible: providing children in the developing world with quality educational opportunities.
At the start of Room to Read, the organization recognized that promoting and facilitating global education required a scalable and sustainable business model. Fast-forward a decade, and Room to Read is now a $30 million, award-winning nonprofit organization working in nine countries that has scaled faster and more successfully than many celebrated for-profit companies.
While I couldn't have predicted such meteoric growth when we started, the secret sauce can best be summed up in one phrase: know what you do, and do it well.
As chief executive, I consider the key ingredients in Room to Read's achievements to be very similar to the elements of a winning corporate business model. I can point to five core components that make up the social-entrepreneurial framework that has enabled Room to Read to become a successful leader in global education, as well as a model and catalyst for systemic change within the communities and countries where we work.
1. Own the Space You're In
As a socially conscious organization, we're perhaps hyperaware of the many challenges facing our neighbors around the globe, including illiteracy, poverty, disease, and war. And because we're driven to improve the life conditions of those in need, there can be a tendency in the nonprofit world to want to tackle all the world's social problems. To be truly effective, however, it's important to recognize your company's organizational strengths and remain true to them. Even more crucial is measuring and evaluating what's working and what isn't. At Room to Read, our passion is global education. We've had an amazing impact in this arena, in part because of our laser-like focus on what we do well—literacy and gender equality in education. We also haven't been shy about taking a hard look at what hasn't worked out well and correcting our course when necessary. Our commitment to expertise and transparency has translated into a growing network of educational resources that includes 10,000 libraries and 1,200 schools, 7.4 million English and local-language children's books, and 10,000 girls being supported in school through graduation from secondary school.
2. Innovation Drives Excellence
Big issues require innovative solutions, so being open to learning and exploring creative approaches is essential for nonprofit organizations. Remaining nimble and taking risks have allowed Room to Read to meet the educational needs of thousands of marginalized communities across two continents. For example, in 2003, when Room to Read couldn't find enough children's books written in the local languages, we secured a major grant from the Skoll Foundation to begin producing our own. We sought local authors and illustrators to develop books through our Local Language Publishing program, and today we are one of the largest publishers of children's books in Asia. If we hadn't stepped outside the box to fill that void, more than 430 original children's book titles in 22 languages would not exist, and hundreds of illustrators and authors would be without the opportunity to share their talents for the educational benefit of thousands of communities. Most importantly, millions of children would have missed out on the hours of pleasure and reading these books have provided.
3. Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk
Practice what you preach. We've heard it since we were children, and it still holds true. Early on, we made the decision at Room to Read to hire locally and empower people who live within the countries where we work to make the decisions for the development and implementation of our programs. We believed this would greatly increase the programs' long-term sustainability, and 10 years later, it remains one of our core operating principles. Our country teams understand the context of each country and can engage with partners, the government, and communities to create systemic change. They are social visionaries for creating educational change in their own countries, and we encourage them to be key decision-makers in developing and implementing innovative solutions to the many challenges their children face in building bright futures.
4. Think Big
When you're trying to tackle illiteracy for more than 759 million people around the globe, two-thirds of whom are women and girls, you need gutsy goals. This year, Room to Read celebrated our 10th anniversary and the opening of our 10,000th library. We're opening a new library somewhere in the world at the rate of one every four hours, and we accomplish this by developing and following models that are scalable, sustainable, and replicable. We prefer not to judge ourselves solely by impressive statistics, however—we also want to ensure that our partnerships with local governments and communities are strong, as they are key to the sustainability of our work in education. Our overarching goal is to demonstrate effective and cost-efficient program models that governments and other nonprofits can adopt and take to other developing areas—something we are already seeing in India, where the Ministry of Education has established libraries based on our models.
5. See and Be Seen
Whether it's a partnership or an in-kind relationship, strategic collaborations with corporations can be mutually beneficial. The Republic of Tea, for example, has developed a special line of organic children's tea from which Room to Read receives a portion of sales to support our libraries. Twitter chose us as their first corporate social innovation partner, which has significantly increased exposure to our work. As the beneficiary of Twitter's Fledgling wines program, $5 of every bottle sold supports our literacy programs. Additional support through donated office space for Room to Read from Credit Suisse and the Financial Times has allowed us to focus our spending on programs and not overhead. One of our more innovative partnerships has been with the software company Atlassian, which unexpectedly saw a 20 percent increase in new business as a result of a campaign benefiting Room to Read. Partnerships such as these provide much-needed support for nonprofits but also give the corporations a positive image and an outlook for giving back to their communities.
I'm confident that the tools and resources Room to Read is providing to children have the power to transform entire communities, and the world. We continue to remain clear on our business model and our core values that we operate by every day. If you can't define what you do and how you should do it, you can't verify that you are doing it well. Analyzing key data and metrics are essential in determining if we are running our organization well. That said, I also define our success by the smiles I see when one girl reads to her illiterate mother from a book that Room to Read published, or when hundreds of children stream into the first library in their rural community. Even better is the knowledge that such moments are duplicated over and over each day in thousands of communities in the developing world.